As any college coach will tell you, the best way to get a good feeling for a program and how it operates is to get on campus and see things first hand. Obviously the best time to do that is in season, when you can have the opportunity to catch a practice or game. Since it's already January, it can be a challenge with your own schedule and sometimes the expense can be somewhat prohibitive. But the reality of what goes on in the arena and on the floor is not something you want to simply hear about in letters, e-mails or phone calls.
Any time you're on campus you'll want to spend time with the coaches and team as well as see and become familiar with the setting and facilities they call home. However, for the purposes of this column, let's focus on what to look for from the coaches and players on the court. We're not going to get into playing style or basketball philosophy but rather take a look how things work on an interpersonal level.
The first thing to keep in mind is not to get caught up in the moment or atmosphere of being in a college practice or at one of their games. Sure, it can be exciting and might even get your heart pumping a bit. But you're there to do some homework and trying to see if you can visualize yourself being a part of what you're seeing on the court.
Watching the head coach, whether it's in the practice setting or a game, should be one of your top focuses. Often recruits get caught up in watching the players on the floor and miss an opportunity to get some real insight into what things would be like playing for somebody day in and day out.
Monitor their demeanor from start to finish. See if they're steady and consistent with how they respond to players and situations; or are they an emotional roller coaster that goes from hot to cold and back again? Take note of their communication style. Some coaches are businesslike and very matter-of-fact in their instruction and correction. You'll find a few that are warm and fuzzy, with their arm around you. And then, of course, there are the screamers. I'm pretty sure that particular way of getting the message across needs no explanation. All coaches are going to raise their voice and get on players at times. It's part of the game and something you have to expect to some degree from almost anyone you might play for. There's no right or wrong in what they're doing on the floor, it's just a good or bad fit for you and what you're looking for in a coaching style.
Also watch the assistants closely. Pay attention to how much teaching they're doing and what input they have in practice or come game time. Some programs have some very hands-on and tremendously capable assistants who are true "coaches" and contributors on the floor. In other settings, you'll see individuals who aren't given much opportunity to actually coach the game and end up just running drills in practice or charting offenses and defenses during games. Again, there's no right or wrong here and the dynamics will differ greatly from program to program. You just need to know if that person you're building that tight relationship with in the recruiting process is going to be one of your "coaches" or just a recruiter and off-court facilitator for your needs beyond basketball. Assistants can play a big role in your college experience and it's good to know going in just what that role might be.
Be sure to observe the give-and-take between the players and the coaches. See if it's an environment that allows for questions and input from the players, or a situation where the only voices heard are those of the staff. I'm not advocating a democracy because athletics has a militaristic aspect where some things are best not discussed or debated. However, good coaches want to make sure no valid question goes unasked and will keep an open ear to what their players are saying. Do keep in mind that some of that give-and-take may occur in film sessions or other off-the-floor interaction.
One very revealing thing to watch both at practices or in games are the players who are not actually on the floor. See how much coaching, feedback and instruction they're getting from the staff while out of the action. Keep track of how involved they stay in their teammate's effort and monitor the ownership they're taking in the team's performance while they're off the court. I'm not talking about the annoying cheerleading types we've all tolerated at times. In a truly competitive, committed and focused program, players who aren't in the game or drill continue to play an important role and embrace it. If you can find that kind of setting in some of the programs you're considering, take a closer look.
Pay attention to the leadership roles among the team members as well, especially the underclassmen who could ultimately be your teammates. Watch closely how the players communicate with each other out on the floor, on the bench or the sideline in practice. It's not hard to pick up on the chemistry of a team when it's in the heat of battle or sweating out a tough practice. Those situations actually remove some of the recruiting window dressing and reveal the true atmosphere surrounding a team and the people who are a part of it.
There are many different components that make a program the right place for you to call home. Many of those factors are things that you can compromise to one degree or another and still feel comfortable with. The coaching environment and interpersonal dynamics of a setting are truly the kind of factors that can make or break your collegiate experience. They should never take a back seat or be sacrificed in your recruiting process. If you're not comfortable with a program's climate on the floor, it's going to have an influence on almost every other aspect of your life.
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Mark Lewis is the national recruiting coordinator for ESPN HoopGurlz. Twice ranked as one of the top 25 assistant coaches in the game by the Women's Basketball Coaches Association, he has more than 20 years of college coaching experience at Memphis State, Cincinnati, Arizona State, Western Kentucky and, most recently, Washington State. He can be reached at email@example.com.